TMT Hearing: Can Hawaiian Culture & Science Co-Exist?

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Photo credit: Kuʻuipo Freitas.

Hawaiian culture versus science: This type of perspective has been used to argue that Native Hawaiians’ have no interest in science, or to insinuate that one culture is superior to another. But Narissa Spies, a Native Hawaiian scientist and University of Hawai‘i Mānoa Ph.D. candidate, disagrees with these stereotypes.

“I’m living proof that science and culture can co-exist,” she said.

The contested case hearings for the state Board of Land and Natural Resources Conservation District Use Application (CDUA) continued on Jan. 11, 12 and 19 as the petitioners opposing the proposed TMT International Observatory’s (TIO) Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project called their witnesses to the stand in Hilo.


In her Ph.D. studies of coral reproduction, Spies discovered a species that didn’t broadcast spawn, or fertilize externally, but brooded larvae internally and released a live planula. With the help of one of her interns, she soon realized that her culture was intertwining with science right before her eyes.

One of the beginning lines of the Kumulipo (Hawaiian creation chant) says, “Hanau ka ʻUku-koʻakoʻa, hanau kana, he ʻAkoʻakoʻa, puka,” which she translated to, “Born was the coral insect, that one which gave birth to a coral colony.”

In 2015, Spies was awarded a $7,500 THINK Fund scholarship from TMT, but decided to decline it. She felt that it was a way of TMT throwing money at a problem to make it go away—to her, it felt like a bribe.


Dr. Jon Osorio, a well-known Native Hawaiian historian and professor of Hawaiian studies at UH Mānoa, furthered Spies’ testimony in his written, direct testimony, saying that he does “not believe that the struggle over the future of Mauna Kea is a conflict between Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians, nor is it a clash between Western science and Hawaiian cultural beliefs.”

Osorio views the struggle as a conflict “between people who see the history and future of Hawaiʻi very differently from one another.”

Asked if a compromise is possible (mitigation measures), Osorio answered that in this particular case, it’s almost impossible.


When Pua Case testified, she said that her family has been called to the northern plateau—the proposed site of the TMT project—to hula, pray, chant and hold sacred ceremonies. Her family has been recognized as cultural practitioners on Mauna Kea.

She was asked if Kahu Ku Mauna, the Office of Mauna Kea Management or archaeologists surveying the proposed site consulted her during any point of the TMT process.

Case answered no.

Case said if the TMT was to be built on Mauna Kea on her watch, she would not be able to voice the same chants or practice the same practices that she currently does. This would cause a sense of helplessness, guilt, anger, sadness and despair at the changes and desecration of the mountain.

The BLNR contested case hearing is scheduled to continue Jan. 23, 24, 25, 26 and will continue into February in the Grand Naniloa Hotel Crown Room in Hilo from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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